Student athletes’ hard work is upended by COVID-19

Student athletes' hard work is upended by COVID-19

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MURRIETA, Calif. — The basketball-themed face masks Kim Montgomery has been sewing in her spare time represent her family’s passion and predicament.

That the Montgomery family — Kim, Craig and their son Jordon — chose to discuss it next to the basketball court in their backyard — about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles — is another sign of what binds them and now troubles them.

Their youngest son, Jordan Montgomery, is a one-time dribbling sensation. A video of him dribbling like a mini-Globetrotter at 6, when he began performing at halftime of high school games, has been viewed on YouTube more than 600,000 times.

Still a skilled ballhandler, Jordan, now 19, is a senior point guard at Murrietta Valley High School. He got a scholarship offer to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles only to watch it fall through in March when the school parted ways with the coach who recruited Jordan.

This spring, he planned to play basketball in front dozens of college coaches and get another shot at a Division I scholarship. Instead, he has ended up playing in front of his parents who sometimes rebound for him on the family’s backyard court and have suffered a double whammy due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been quite the adventure, OK?’’ Kim Montgomery says.

Their furniture repair business is struggling, with income down about 65%. The pandemic also led to the cancellation of spring sports, denying Jordan a chance to showcase his talent and vie for a college scholarship that would ease the family’s financial burden.

He and his parents are not alone.

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A recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of TD Ameritrade shows competitive athletes between the ages of 15 and 29 and parents have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the findings:

— Almost 20% say their scholarships have been delayed or canceled.

— Many families worry they will no longer be able to foot the bill for elite sports if the economic downturn persists.

During an interview in the family’s backyard, Jordan’s father, Craig Montgomery, estimated he has spent $200,000 on his son’s basketball career. That includes the cost of private coaches, trainers and travel for tournaments in more than a dozen states. Now, he said, the family could have to pay up to $30,000 for Jordan’s education during the next academic year.

It’s not uncommon for parents of athletes to reveal these sort of numbers. The Harris Poll found that 4 in 10 competitive athletes say their parents talk about how much they invest to help their kids excel. Half of those kids also say they feel guilty about how much their parents pay, according to the survey that polled almost 1,600 young athletes and 200 parents of athletes and was conducted anonymously and online between Feb. 20 and April 16.

Craig says he doesn’t want son to worry about the money. But Jordan said it would be hard to ignore the reality that playing for a Division 1 school without a scholarship means he’ll need to become a “walk-on”  — and pay for tuition, room and board.

“At times it weighs on me,’’ Jordan says.

As of now, he has only one scholarship offer — from Sonoma State, a Division II school in northern California. The offer requires the Montgomery family to cover about $15,000 expenses for Jordan’s freshman year.

Last year, Jordan got a scholarship offer from Loyola Marymount University head coach Mike Dunlap, and a four-year ride at the Jesuit university in Los Angeles is worth about $200,000. But on March 8, Loyola Marymount announced the school and Dunlap had mutually agreed to part ways.

Jordan says he never received scholarship papers from the university and did not hear from the new head coach by April 15, the official signing date for high school seniors.

With Jordan’s mother in charge of publicity, the Montgomerys are using Sports Thread, a free social networking platform for athletes. They’ve posted more than 40 videos of Jordan’s high school games on the app, which functions like LinkedIn and Instagram for athletes seeking playing opportunities.

Like students, schools are also feeling the uncertainty as they figure out how much scholarship money they can offer after the financial impact of the pandemic. Some 15% of the competitive athletes surveyed by The Harris Poll said college recruiting has stalled.

The survey also found:

— About 75% of athletes say they’re focusing more on academics. (Jordan Montgomery said he has maintained a 3.5 grade point average while taking care of his final classes at Murrieta Valley High School through distance learning.)

— More than 60% of competitive athletes say they’re working out more at home. (Jordan continues to train at home, where his daily routine as a kid used to include an hour of dribbling while watching SpongeBob SquarePants.)

— Almost half of the athletes surveyed by The Harris Poll are playing more video games and watching more eSports. Almost 40% are doing so as their dreams of playing have been dashed, and that’s certainly true for three inner-city baseball players in Atlanta.

Swinging for the fences

Living in an impoverished neighborhood, these three seniors on the Booker T. Washington High School baseball team saw college scholarships as a path to a more prosperous future.

Things looked hopeful March 9, when Booker T. Washington beat nearby Therrell High School 13-2 in its seventh game of the season and they showcased their skills.

Devon Clinkscales, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound third baseman, went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer, a double and three runs batted in.

Terrance Wright, a left-handed pitcher, struck out nine batters in four innings, allowed one run and notched the victory.

Timahkez Garrison, an outfielder, went 2-for-3 with two singles and two scored runs.

“Man,’’ says Quinterus Vancant, who in 2017 became the head baseball coach at Booker T. Washington, “this would have been our best year.’’

That rousing 13-2 victory was their last game of the season, abruptly canceled because of the pandemic.

Late bloomers, Clinksdales and Wright had worked with C.J. Stewart, a highly regarded baseball instructor in Atlanta who said the two players had a 75% chance of securing college scholarships. Now the chances are closer to zero. But that may not even be the worst of their problems.

During the pandemic, Clinksdales says, his family was served an eviction notice.  Although they have been allowed to remain in their rental apartment, they are struggling to make ends meet, he says.

Wright and Garrison said their families were struggling before the pandemic.

 An entire athletic program shuts down

The heartache has been no less profound than at Urbana University, a Division II school in Ohio.

Citing financial pressure from the pandemic, the university outside of Columbus announced on April 21 that it would close at the end of the school year — uprooting 250 returning athletes and an incoming class of 150 athletes. The small, liberal arts college fielded teams in 19 sports.

Members of the women’s basketball team learned of the closure online during a hastily called Zoom meeting.

“I felt my stomach sink, my heart was breaking,’’ says Kasey Knippen, a freshman guard. “As soon as I got off the Zoom meeting, I went upstairs and looked at my mom and broke down. I just sat there and I bawled my eyes out.’’

Shalaya Heath, a freshman forward, says she was so shocked by the news she didn’t know how to react.

“I was tearing up, for sure,” Heath says, adding that she felt especially bad for seniors who played spring sports like softball and would not get to complete their final season.

Soon Urbana athletes found themselves studying for finals, at the same time working with their coaches to find new schools and scholarships. While the athletes had lost their scholarships, the coaches had lost their jobs.

“The coaching staff has been nothing short of remarkable as they engaged with players who are navigating how to shift gears to find the school and athletic program that best fits their needs,” Larry Cox, athletic director at Urbana, said by email. “We are happy to report that incoming players have been re-recruited, and players who earned a lot of playing time this past season have also been in demand.”

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